News Column

How the US Tax Code Subsidizes Banks

Sept. 28, 2012

Jesse Eisinger

Hands exchanging money

This tax code distortion makes the financial system and the economy more fragile and prone to bankruptcies and runs. Banks profit, and the economy teeters.

Thanks to a leaked video, we know that Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, divides the United States into those who pay income taxes and those who do not, the makers and the moochers.

There is one perhaps surprising group you can put in the latter category: banks. Sure, banks pay taxes, but they pay a lot less, thanks to a giant and underappreciated distortion in the U.S. tax code. Moreover, this tax code distortion makes the financial system and the economy more fragile and prone to bankruptcies and runs. Banks profit, and the economy teeters. Great bargain, huh?

It is the tax code's favoring of debt over equity.

For businesses, debt interest payments are tax deductible; equity payments, like a company's payment of a dividend, are not. At the margin, this encourages entities to take on more debt than they otherwise would. More debt not only makes companies more vulnerable to bankruptcy, it also makes investors more susceptible to panics, in which they withdraw their capital en masse. More equity would make the world more stable.

"The worst thing the tax code can do," said Victor Fleischer, a tax specialist at the University of Colorado, "is to make it harder to use a sensible capital structure." Mr. Fleischer, a contributor to The New York Times DealBook, testified to Congress last year about this problem.

This distortion is well known. President Barack Obama, in his tax overhaul proposal, mentioned it, though he did not make any specific proposal about what to do about it. The Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, is proposing substantial tax cuts with the loss of revenue made up through the closing of loopholes. He has yet to specify any of those loopholes, but corporate debt interest deductibility has not been in the conversation.

What is not well appreciated is how much the debt deduction helps the banks. The first way is direct: Banking is a highly leveraged industry. Banks use more debt than equity to finance their activities. The tax break makes the debt less costly and encourages banks, at the margin, to gorge on more.

Financing techniques that have become more popular in recent decades benefit from this distortion. Bundling of debt, like credit card receivables or mortgage debt, called securitization, turns out to give banks a tax bonanza. For accounting purposes, banks are typically able to treat their bundling of this debt as a sale. But for tax purposes, banks often get to call it debt. Those payments to the buyers of the securitizations' bonds are therefore tax deductible for the bank.

More important, there is an indirect and unremarked benefit. Banks help companies raise money in two main ways: through the sale of stock (equity) and debt, either through loans or the sale of bonds. When a company goes public, selling stock for the first time, the underwriting banks make more money than they do for a comparable debt offering. But banks make it up on volume with debt. Bonds expire. Companies issue more of them all the time.

Partly because of the tax code distortion, corporate debt is underpriced and overconsumed by the bank's corporate customers. Indeed, the debt business dominates the world of investment banking these days. When corporations raise more debt, compared with equity, that fattens bank profits.

Then, too, the trading of debt is more profitable than the trading of equity. Stocks are traded on transparent markets at transparent prices. Debt is traded in opaque ways, where the spread between the offered and requested prices is wider than for stocks. That means more profit for investment banks than for stocks, whose trading spreads have narrowed for decades. So, too, with derivatives and securities based on debt -- things like collateralized debt obligations.

And these complex debt securities give society what? The U.S. system subsidizes the middleman to create dubious products. Those products help the middlemen -- the banks -- but they make the financial system more fragile. So the tax code distortion does not just lead to more debt in corporate America and more-leveraged banks. It also helps create a finance-heavy economy in which the banking sector accounts for a bigger proportion of gross domestic product and corporate profits than it otherwise would. Granted, the tax code is far from the only force in U.S. society that creates a larger financial sector or overleveraged corporations. But it's one of the least recognized.

As many of us have come to understand since the financial crisis, having a bigger finance industry than necessary wastes resources. Banking is supposed to provide capital to help companies create real goods and services, not be an end unto itself.

As it is, lawyers, accountants and investment bankers spend thousands of billable hours analyzing transactions to figure out whether there are ways to treat them like debt, rather than equity.

Are there solutions to this distortion?

There are two choices: reduce or eliminate interest deductibility or introduce some deduction for equity.

Neither seems particularly feasible for some time. Reducing the deductibility would be elegant, but it would generate screams of bloody murder from corporate America.

Making dividend payments tax deductible, which would start to level the playing field, might be easier and more popular. Of course, that would reduce revenue to the government and have to be made up somehow, through tax increases elsewhere or decreased services.

Mr. Fleischer suggests that one way to limit the distortion would be to eliminate the deduction to the extent a financial institution exceeds a ratio of debt-to-equity of 5 to 1. If a bank has borrowed $6 for every $1 in stock, then it would not get to deduct the interest payments on that extra dollar of debt. That would make debt more expensive and make banks less inclined to borrow as much.

And it would help stop banks from being moochers.

Source: (C) 2012 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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